Avoiding New Puppy Burnout

The best way to avoid burnout in puppies is to develop a long-term training plan and stick to it. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

There’s one strange thing that happens when most of us buy a hound puppy. In the days before collection and then in the first few weeks after the offspring enters our house, the enthusiasm is mostly red lines. But when the novelty of a new puppy wears off a little and the reality of daily training and caring for a new dog hits, it becomes harder to keep your foot on the gas. This is one of the reasons I encourage all of our customers to come up with a game plan before they bring their pup home. Committing to structure, not just for the head trainer in the family, but for everyone who interacts with the pup is a big deal. It brings everyone on the same page and develops a workable schedule to get the youngsters on the right track. Many people are surprised to hear this, but from my point of view this strategy should pay attention to what can absolutely be achieved in the first 10 days. At the end of this period, a retriever puppy should demonstrate that it understands several commands, including sit, stay, come, lie down, place, and force.

Well, puppies are individuals so timing can vary just a little, but if you work on training these commands the dog will quickly learn which behaviors produce the caloric reward. This is the foundation on which all good dogs are built and is the first step in hunting dog ownership that will allow you to see gains and understand what to do when things get a little tougher, which you no doubt do become.

Training progress

For many puppy owners, the time after the first 10 days is one of the more difficult times, but these simple treat-based exercises should be continued with your treat training for approximately 12 weeks. Eventually, by the time your puppy nears the five month mark, you’ll be completely weaned him from treats and relying on leash work and praise.

Making a young Labrador puppy happyUsing treats to reward your young pup for desirable behavior and compliance must be a mainstay of your early training. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is when many of us enter a new reality with our dogs that can seem frustrating. All puppies will test you, and the best opportunity to do so is when you show them that the behavior you want them to do doesn’t necessarily lead to a nibble on what they want most at this age. Add that this is also the time they learn they are expected to use the bathroom outside, and it’s easy to see why puppies are often called stubborn when they are most likely just confused . When a dog is confused or just doesn’t see the request as worthy of its attention, then as trainers we experience behavior that can be frustrating or viewed as a failure. But it’s important to understand that compliance is a moving goal at this age. Nobody has a perfect three or four month old laboratory, trust me.

The key to getting through this stage and reaping the right rewards is to stick to the plan and not give up. While it may seem harder to raise puppies when they reach this time, that’s really just a sign that you need to continue your plan of reducing the treats, keeping the dog on a leash, and making sure your Baby level exercises show the puppy knows what you are asking. Even if he doesn’t follow every command one hundred percent, it is important to know that he knows the commands, especially since at some point, at a certain age, he will test you and you need to know what you are handling to ensure a proper correction.

Testing & timing

One of the goals of early leash work is to show the puppy that you are in charge, and if necessary, you can pull on the leash a little to ensure that understanding. The degree of correction here is entirely up to the dog, and it is best to always start gently. What this does, just like with previous treat training, is to give the dog a choice. He can ignore you if you ask him to come and get a correction, or he can make the right choice and avoid the correction (and get some praise). This stage can be fun, but it’s also the time most pups are testing you, and what’s fascinating is that you can watch them actually think about doing just that.

Young girl with black labrador puppy on a leashUse a short leash to control your pup and enforce commands from close range before moving on to a control cord and E-collar. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This disobedience is almost guaranteed to show up with the “come” command at some point. It happens to everyone, but it’s most obvious when you’ve been too easy with the corrections or not hard enough with the praise. You will ask the dog to come and he will pause for a second or two and then immediately return to the behavior he prefers most. This is a dog who knows there should be behavior, thought about it, and realized that the risk wasn’t worth taking.

At this point, a harder correction is needed until you find the level at which the dog finally realizes that it is just better to comply. This is one of the things that makes this stage difficult for people who don’t make a living with dogs. The concern is that the correction will be too severe or that the dog will not understand what is going on, which will lead to confusion. But dogs are simple in many ways, and puppies who have clearly shown that they understand a command and then choose not to, need to be convinced that they really don’t have a choice. Usually it doesn’t require a lot of correction, but it is up to you as the owner and handler to find this level so that the dog is working in the right direction, because if you don’t, the whole plan will be shaken.

This is a problem because just like the treat training phase, the transition to leash work and praise will be set up as a reward, eventually the puppy will be ready to move on to more check cord training and, as a final stop, E-collar work . In my 40+ years training retrievers, this reinforced training strategy is key to maximizing puppy development before they are one year old. And it honestly forms the basis for the dog and handler who create a positive, lifelong bond with one another at home and in the field.

Training a puppy to be obedient is a challenge. It’s just like that, and when that challenge and the enormity of the task show up, it’s usually a few weeks after the puppy arrives when things get more routine and the roadmap is set for the next eight or ten months. This is a crucial time frame for the pup’s development and is a lot easier to work with once you have a plan and understand some of the challenges you will face. But the long term goal is worth it, and if you want to achieve it (you do) then there is a process that will take you there. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth it – and you will never regret it when your dog is a well behaved four year old who flushes roughhouses or roosters like it’s his job and comes every time you call him.

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