The answer is easy, in the beginning. Not only is it the best place, it is the only place to start when talking about training a dog or puppy. It makes logical sense, yet the question "where do I start" is often one of the most common I receive. The nice part about that question is I already know the answer, and it doesn't vary... you have to start in the beginning. Before we get into where the beginning is, what it looks like and where it leads us to, lets talk about why. You may have noticed I used both the word "dog" and "puppy" in the title of this article. More often than not, there is a reason for just about everything, and this is no exception.
The Difference Between a dog and a puppy
I think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to what is the ditterence between a puppy and a dog. And that confusion is compounded when new owners start to map out where to begin with their training. If someone brings home a 7 week old puppy it's usually pretty easy to understand...you have a puppy. But what about someone who just adopted the 7 month old coon hound mix that already weighs 55 Ibs, or that maybe you just brought in a year old black lab tipping the scales at 110 lbs and looks like he still might have some room to grow into those oversized paws? Although each of these examples vary greatly in both age and size, lets say that they all have one thing in common, very little or no understanding of basic obedience. So, how do you know where you start with each of them? To clear things up right out of the gate, I called all 3 examples noted in that last paragraph puppies, even though 2 out of the 3 certainly look more like a "dog" than a "puppy". I think there is a big misunderstanding when it comes to what makes a puppy a puppy, or a dog a dog. And I don't think it's always completely black and white.
I think there are a lot of folks out there that think they have dogs because they look like dogs physically, but mentally (which we can't see and often times don't truly understand) they are still very much so puppies. However, because they look like a dog we often times think we need to take a different approach to training them, or as I prefer to call it, raising them. I think an important thing to understand is that just because they look like a dog and appear physically mature, we need to be aware that mentally they are likely still quite immature. It takes a lot longer for them to "grow up" mentally than physically and at times, they will give us reminders of that. You know, those moments when their coordination and agility, or more accurately their lack of, shines through. There are those times when their feet just don't line up with what they are trying to do in their mind, and they can be downright clumsy! We see this same thing at times with our kids, particularly in sports. Just because a 15 yr old kid is 6°-7" tall and weighs 220 Ibs, that doesn't mean he plays the game of basketball with the same level of understanding and decision making that a similar sized 28 year old, 10 year NBA veteran would. And we all know that just because that 15 year old kid looks like a man, to expect him to make all the other life decisions with matching maturity is also not realistic. It takes time for both dogs and people to truly "grow up". Our patience and understanding is usually there when it comes to humans, but greatly overlooked with K-9's. You will hear me refer to any dogs under the age of 2 years old as puppies. Now thats not to say that somehow they magically reach maturity after their second birthday, but as a general rule that is around the point where I start to see them really make the turn when it comes to "growing up".
Where to start: the Foundation
Foundation is where everything starts. If you have aspirations to build anything that will perform well and last you will need to be sure you put in a solid foundation. Whether your'e looking to build a business, a sports team, a 20 story high-rise, or a dog; without a solid foundation it is impossible. When it comes to dogs, the nice part is that the foundation you will need is relatively simple. In fact, I feel comfortable going so far as saying it's very simple. By simple I mean it's not complex. Regardless of your aspirations, both in the field as well as in the home, you will need to start at the same point. Heel, Sit, Stay and Here or Recall. That's it, it is that simple.
In order to do any kind of complicated drills or lessons to develop a sporting dog in the field you will need a few things to be there without fail. That is where those aforementioned foundation skills come into play. For example, there will come a point in training that I want to look at extending my dogs ability to make retrieves out to 100, 200, maybe 300 yards or more out. I certainly cannot throw a bumper out that far, so how can I get them proficient at extending their lines? One of the most effective ways I know how to do this is by setting up a trailing memory. I simply heel the dog out to a predetermined area or point of fall. Pitch the bumper, turn around and heel the dog back incrementally making maybe 50 yard jumps in the length or distance over 3 or 4 repetitions. Really quickly and easily I can go from a 50 yard retrieve to 200 and with a lot of success. But...in order to do this drill, I first need the dog that can heel without any issues. If I can't get a dog to heel well throughout the trailing memory setup, I will be fighting just to set the drill up and the chances of us finding success are slim to none in the end. In order to build on any and all of your training you will need to scale drills and lessons by adding complexity. If your foundation isn't sound, you simply won't be able to add to the drills. It's like asking a kid to write a book. Before you can expect them to be be able to do that, you first have to teach them how to write a complete sentence, and before that they will need to be able to spell and use words correctly. That all makes a lot of sense to most of us. The same idea needs to make just as much sense when it comes to raising and training dogs.
Over the years I have come across plenty of issues, problems or struggles with the dogs I've worked and continue to work with. For every struggle I've had myself, I've been asked varieties of questions 50x. And over all those years with all those different questions, I can still say with a lot of confidence that the great majority, if not all of them, can be tracked back to and remedied by simply strengthening the foundation. Like I mentioned earlier, the good news is that the answer is easy. It all starts in the beginning and the beginning is your dogs foundation. In the next issue I plan to break down the foundation Heel, Sit, Stay and Recall more in depth.