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. 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, let's 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. I think there is a lot of confusion when it comes to what the difference is between a puppy and a dog. That confusion is then compounded when new owners start to map out where to begin with their training. If someone brings home a seven week old puppy it's usually pretty easy to understand, you have a puppy. But what about someone who just adopted the seven month old coonhound mix that already weighs 55 lbs? Or maybe you just brought in a year old black lab that's 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, they all may have one thing in common- very little or no understanding of basic obedience.
So, how do you know where do you start with each of those scenarios?
To clear things up right out of the gate, I called all three examples noted in that last paragraph puppies, even though two out of the three 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. Something I see very often is that there are a lot of folks out there that think they have "dogs" because they look like grown 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 pups 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 more often than not with kids, particularly in sports. Just because a 15 year old kid is 6' 7" tall and weighs 220 lbs, 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. 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 typically as puppies. Now that's 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".
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 you're looking to build a business, a sports franchise or team, a 20 story high-rise, or a raise a well-mannered dog...without a solid foundation it is impossible.
When it comes to the 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. Does simple mean easy? Not necessarily. When I say 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 in an attempt to develop a fine 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 dog's ability to make retrieves at a distance of 100, 200, maybe 300 yards or more. 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 incrementally 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. Even before that, they will need to learn the alphabet and what actual letters are. That 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 similar varieties of questions 50 times over. 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 traced back to, and remedied by, simply strengthening the foundation. Like I mentioned earlier, the good news is that the answer is simple. It all starts in the beginning and the beginning is your dog's foundation. In the next issue I plan to break down the foundation, Heel, Sit, Stay and Recall or Here even more in depth.